Saturday, August 20, 2011

Power to the People

Film: Salt of the Earth
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass DVD player.

While there are certainly some who might disagree, I’d suggest that one of the darker periods in the world of entertainment was the Hollywood blacklist. It turned friends against each other and cause a lot of unnecessary hatred throughout the country. The blacklist was an ugly period, and a lot of people suffered needlessly. One of the things that came out of the era was Howard Biberman’s Salt of the Earth.

Salt of the Earth is billed as the “only blacklisted American film,” and that seems like a bit of hyperbole and purple prose intended to get the rank-and-file titillation crowd to grab it off the shelf and give it a watch. Well, that crowd will almost certainly be disappointed in what’s on the disc. It probably got this particular moniker because it was directed by blacklisted director Biberman, written by blacklist member Michael Wilson, and starred blacklisted Will Geer and Rosaura Revueltas.

Knowing that most of the main people involved were involved in the blacklist, though, makes the subject matter of the film very interesting. This film was virtually banned in the U.S. (it played in about 12 theaters total) because it seemed to have significant communist sympathies. Having now seen the film, I find it difficult to disagree with that particular sentiment. It very much does feel like a film that would make the Communist Party stand up and cheer.

Anyway, the film takes place in New Mexico in a mining town. We learn very quickly that our Mexican-American main characters are workers in the mine, and that they are not treated very well by the mining company. Their houses (on company property) don’t have running water, and the Mexican workers are paid considerably less than the Anglo workers. And so the men go on strike. One of the leaders of the striking workers is Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacon). His wife, Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas) is pregnant with their third child.

The film follows the progress of the strike, as the men fight against the scab workers and the oppression from the company (and there’s a lot of oppression). Eventually, the company gets a court order to prevent the mine workers from striking, but the court order doesn’t include the women. And so the women take over the picket lines and the men are forced to stay home and work. Eventually, the film ends with the workers essentially having broken the strike with Ramon publically thanking the women for their support. Really, that’s a spoiler, but it’s hardly one you couldn’t see coming.

Actors like Geer and Revueltas certainly had the muscle to pull this film off, and their parts are pretty well done. The bulk of the film is handled by amateur actors, though, and it’s pretty evident that they aren’t professionals. Much of the dialogue is pretty wooden and halting and pretty poorly delivered. Then again, that wasn’t really the main point of the film—this was all about showing the workers of the world (or at least this part of New Mexico) that uniting had some real value. There’s a lot of propaganda here about the value of the union and how being in the union made everything better, since it was the union that helped the mine workers win the battle and kept them alive through the months of no salary.

There is a definite amateur feel to the film as well. Parts of it go a bit out of focus here and there, and the footage is horrible grainy in places. It’s not a pretty film to look at, but again, the look here isn’t what was considered important. It was all about the message of the workers overcoming against the wealthy bosses who oppressed them. And, with everyone being a part of the blacklist, it wasn’t like there was a ton of money floating around to make the film.

Is it worth watching? I guess. It does manage to get its message across, at times in spite of itself. This is a film to watch not for the scintillating acting or the beautiful sets, or even for the story it tells. Watch it because it’s important historically and because in its own way, the workers in the film and the filmmakers are fighting the same battle against the oppressors who had all the power.

Why to watch Salt of the Earth: It feels like a real-life drama, and it pissed off McCarthy.
Why not to watch: There’s a real amateur feel to this film, and not in a good way.


  1. I think I'll stick with the "Dirty Hands" episode of the Battlestar Galactica reboot.

  2. I prefer the "Jaynestown" episode of Firefly.

  3. TCM showed Salt of the Earth last week and I DVRed it and watched it this afternoon.

    I've known of this film for a long time, long before I ever heard of the List, and I've been meaning to get to it for more than 20 years. But it seemed like it might be a downer or it might be boring if I wasn't in the mood for it, so ... well, it took me a while to get to it.

    But it's actually very entertaining. I found it watchable and intriguing and even a little endearing.

    At times, it has a feeling like a really good low-budget horror or science fiction film, just without the horror or science fiction. I never had any problem with the amateur's acting. This film is like an American neo-realist movie at times.

    I liked it quite a bit. But I bet I wouldn't have liked it near as much if I had seen it when I first hear of it 25 years ago.

    1. American neo-realism isn't a bad way to put it. It does feel like that, like it almost wants to be a documentary but can't quite get there. I understand exactly what you mean about the low-budget horror feel minus the horror, although were I more a Wobblie than I am, I might feel differently.